A common complaint we get from executives and HR managers is the lack of good leaders today. This is curious, given we have had a massive leadership development industry going for over two decades. Perhaps to understand this seeming contradiction, we need to look at what lies underneath those complaints about the lack of great leaders. There are 3 factors that will impact perceptions about the quality of leadership:

  1. Our expectations of leaders have changed vastly. One result of training so many people in what makes good leaders is that this creates higher expectations in those being led. Especially in the area of emotional intelligence and providing quality feedback and coaching to develop employees.
  2. Second we have increased the complexity of the organisations that our leaders are expected to perform in. There is much more information to deal with, it travels faster, goes across traditional silos and demands faster and better decision making with incomplete knowledge.
  3. Third we now expect our organisations to be in permanent change mode. This means organisations actually need leaders and not just managers to be successful in such an environment. Managing the status quo is primarily about efficient task performance and resource allocation. Leading change requires a much broader set of skills and capabilities.

These three factors undoubtedly impact perceptions around the quality of leadership. There is an additional dimension that was recently highlighted in a report by PWC and Harthill Consulting – “The Hidden Talent”. This report explores the relationship between the mental model a person has of themselves and the world and their performance in a senior leadership role (especially in relation to transformational leadership).

This idea that leaders perform in accordance to their mental model, their so-called ‘action logic’ comes from developmental psychology. In essence your ability to influence the world around you is based on how you interpret your own actions and the actions of those around you. For example, if you currently operate from what is called the ‘Expert’ action logic, you cannot accept that other people come to different conclusions when looking at the same data or information. In your model of the world there is one ‘right way’ and your effectiveness as a subject matter expert is testament to the fact the your way of seeing the world is the right way. Only once you move beyond this Expert action logic do you come to realise that multiple perspectives and frames of reference are possible and even valid interpretations.

This so-called the Leadership Development Framework was developed by Bill Torben in the 1980s and is today maintained by Harthill Consulting in the UK. The graph below provides a quick overview of the different action logics and the percentage of executives and senior leaders performing at each level (the distribution is obviously quite different when non-managerial staff or lower level managers are tested).

LDF graph

Images from ‘The Hidden Talent’ report.

What makes this interesting in the context of looking for better leaders? Probably that it is the only tool we are aware of that can predict if a person is going to be successful as a transformational leader. Yet the core finding of the PWC report is that the number of leaders performing at the required ‘Strategist’ action logic has stayed pretty much constant between 2005 and 2015, at 8% of executives and senior managers (again, this percentage is much lower in the general population).

At the same time the need for transformational leaders is growing all the time, as organisational challenges increase with reduced economic growth, government cuts, increased competition, disruptive technology and continuing globalisation. So have organisations failed in developing the right type of leaders?

The key finding of the study is NOT that organisations are not producing enough leaders at the required Strategist level. What Harthill and PWC found instead is that they are leaving. In droves. Between 2005 and 2015 the percentage of Strategists amongst consultants, advisors and non-executive directors increased from 5% to 29%. The real failure is one of retention, not of development.

From our perspective and experience in coaching senior managers, including many Strategists, the reason for this inability to retain Strategists is actually quite straight-forward. Strategists will inevitably be seen as ‘troublemakers’ by anyone operating from a lower action logic. Strategists routinely think outside the box, see connections others can’t, can see the world from other people’s perspective, reframe problems in creative ways, do not respect rules that go against their principles, see both the big and small picture at any time and can appear detached as they fluidly traverse a universe full of options and possibilities open to them. In short, their capacity to be above the fray, to see clearly how systems and power operate in an organisation is not conducive to making friends in your average hierarchic bureaucracy.

Strategist Leadership Capabilities

By the time the organisation discovers they need someone with just these capabilities, they will typically have left. Most will leave because they can’t get the autonomy and power they would need to implement the changes that they have identified as required and possible. The will find their organisation too slow, too risk averse, unable to make relevant decisions and struggle immensely with traditional performance frameworks. Incredibly, in those performance rankings/reviews they will likely receive an ‘average’ score. This is especially galling to Strategists, but not really surprising, as conforming is not their strength.

To us the PWC report looks like evidence of this process playing out across the world. We have seen it frequently in our coaching practice in Australia, especially since 2009. Most Strategists we coached ended up leaving the organisations they were in, unable to tolerate the constraints they were being put under. Sometimes the organisation recognised the potential loss at the last minute and offered a monetary incentive to stay. This is further evidence of the complete ignorance what Strategists are about – at the Strategist action logic level money is a poor incentive. Strategists care much more about contributing to society or creating better workplaces than boosting their salary.

We have been using the Harthill Leadership Development Framework for quite some time now. It is very useful for understanding a number of common leadership issues in organisations and in helping individuals make the necessary advances in their action logic to progress to the next level. As a result we have decided to get certified in using and debriefing the tool in November this year.  I will provide a deeper insight into this tool when I look at the transition from Expert to Achiever in my second blog in this series.